St Andrew’s Church, Lismore
7 April 2023
When Jesus said YES to God
Today we face a brute fact: Jesus was killed by the empire.
The people with privilege, power and position eliminated Jesus, because he posed an existential threat to their privilege, their power and their position.
It was him or them.
So it was him!
Except that there was so much more happening, which was mostly beyond their understanding.
The means chosen by the empire to get rid of the threat posed by Jesus reveals their assessment of things. He was despatched by the authorities as if he were a rebel. His death was intended to be slow and deliberate. The process of crucifixion was not so much about killing the victim (although it certainly did that), as it was designed to evoke fear, terror and submission in other people as they observed what had happened to the victim.
This process was also in play near the start of Jesus’ life as well.
When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, the city of Sepphoris in Galilee declared its independence and refused to accept continued Herodian rule. Rome suppressed the revolt. They destroyed the city, which was just a few km from the village of Nazareth. And they crucified a Jewish rebel every mile along the roads leading away from Sepphoris, which was the capital city for the Galilee.
Whether Jesus actually saw those crucified Jews, or simply heard about this act of state terror from the older people in his village, we can be sure that he knew from an early age what happens to people who cause trouble for Rome.
The earliest followers of Jesus quickly saw the cross as the defining moment of Jesus’ life, and we can hardly disagree. But they did not have a single way of explaining how the death of Jesus could be the event that changed everything. They never solved that puzzle, even though they were certain that the cross was a pivotal moment of atonement, or reconciliation between God and humanity.
The Great Church has never defined the doctrine of atonement either, although that comes as surprise to many Christians. We simply affirm that the cross changed everything. But just how that works has been left undefined, despite the many prayers, hymns and sermons that seem so certain about their own explanations.
As we think about the death of Jesus and the atonement that it secures, we need to avoid some classic mistakes found in the answers that been popular from time to time.
One of those bad ideas about the cross, is that there was no other way for God to forgive sins. Of course, that is not true. It is of the very essence of God to forgive, and God did not need Jesus to die on the cross to be able to forgive people. God was already known as a compassionate and forgiving God in the Old Testament, long before the time of Jesus.
Another bad idea is that the physical and psycho-spiritual suffering experienced by Jesus is what secures our atonement, our reconciliation with God. This is not only a bad idea, but it portrays God in a very poor light. Such ideas also make suffering inherently redemptive and have led generations of male priests to tell women and children to stay in abusive relationships, and more generally to encourage people to see their own suffering as somehow “good for them” and something that God wants them to accept.
We hear a lot about the blood of Jesus in Christian songs and prayers, but we hardly ever come across the idea in the NT itself.
There are almost 450 references to blood in the Bible, but only 21 of them refer to the blood of Jesus having some kind of saving power. Only 2 of those 21 instances occur in Paul’s authentic letters (both in Romans as it happens). The idea never occurs in Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 or 2 Corinthians, Philippians or Philemon. It isn’t even found in the Pastoral Epistles, but is found several times in Hebrews and Revelation.
[For the curious, the complete list of NT references to the blood of Jesus includes: the 4 accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; Rom 3:25 & 5:9; Eph 1:7 & 2:13; Col 1:20; Heb 10:19, 29; 12:24; 13:12 & 20; 1 Petr 1:2 & 19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5; 5:9; 7:14 & 12:11.]
There is a much stronger idea expressed in some detail in Romans 4, where Paul develops the comparison between the faith of Abraham that secured God’s blessing for the Jews, and the faith of Jesus that secures God’s blessing on all humanity.
We do not even have to agree with Paul’s logic here (and it is not very convincing actually) to see that he offers a far more elegant and eloquent explanation for how the death of Jesus on the cross has been an immense blessing for all people everywhere.
It is simply that Jesus trusted God, and that this faith demonstrated by Jesus secured a blessing first of all for Jesus (resurrection) but also a blessing in which we can each choose to participate if we adopt a similar attitude of trust (faith) in God’s compassion, goodness and love.
What I like most about Paul’s proposal, even though I think his argument is a bit stretched, is that it coheres with the words and actions of Jesus during his lifetime.
The message of Jesus as expressed in his parables and in his miracles is that the blessings of God are available here and now. Jesus calls that reality the kingdom of God. He does not speak about the need to find some way to secure God’s forgiveness of our sins. He simply invites us to act as if God already loves us, and all we need to do is express trust or have faith.
How many times does Jesus say to someone, “Your faith has made you whole.”
Today we celebrate the faith of Jesus as he says YES to God.
And we ask for grace to have the faith to say YES to God as well.